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Objects of Desire
Charlie Benenson ’33, who amassed one of the world’s finest private collections of African art, also helped discover American artists such as Saul Steinberg and Red Grooms. Virtually all of his extraordinary collection is coming to Yale.

Benenson Collection Tour

The 14-foot-tall blue man who stands by the driveway of the Benenson house in Connecticut, welcoming visitors in all his naked fiberglass majesty, is a worthy update of the great marble male nudes of ancient Greece. Except, of course, that he is not only blue but also shiny and completely bald. A big hole goes cleanly through his blue chest, and suspended inside it is a purplish-red, oblate heart. There are two switches for the heart. One of them turns on a light inside it that glows and dims at the rate of a heartbeat. The other turns on the audio.

Benenson was a quiet man who loved wild art.

Charles B. Benenson ’33 (1913–2004) bought the blue man, by Jonathan Borofsky, about 15 years ago. Benenson was a quiet, friendly, rather reserved man who loved wild art. “That’s nice and crazy,” he’d say, gesturing toward a work by Saul Steinberg or Louise Bourgeois, the way one might say a sweater was nice and warm. Six months after buying a canvas called White Tiger by the controversial pop artist Richard Lindner, he met the painter. Lindner was surprised. “You don’t look like the type of man who’d buy such a wild and crazy painting,” he said. (“You don’t look like the type of man who’d paint it,” Benenson replied.)

Benenson made his fortune in New York City real estate. By the early 1960s he had become a passionate collector of contemporary North American and European art. Unlike many collectors, he didn’t rely on dealers for his taste. Nor did he buy as a speculator; the only time he sold any art was in the ’70s, when money was tight, and he regretted it ever afterwards. He bought what he liked. He liked to walk right through the dealers’ showrooms and look through the art in the back. In this way he happened on the work of a young unknown named Jean-Michel Basquiat and bought one of his paintings for a price that would be laughable later, when Basquiat was the talk of the New York art world. He also found a large Kurt Schwitters collage in a warehouse and bought it ten minutes before Bill Rubin, then director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, walked in and asked for it. It’s now widely considered Schwitters’s masterpiece.

His other passion was African ritual art. The dealers used to disembark at Kennedy Airport and come directly to his Manhattan office. Over three decades, he amassed one of the finest private collections of African art in the world. He had four elephant tusks, carved by Kongo artists in such detail that even the tiniest fish have scales. He had a bronze Fon headdress with dangling chains; his second wife once wore it to a party. He had a Baga mask that Yale’s new curator of African art, Frederick Lamp (whose position was endowed by Benenson), believes was possibly the largest mask in all of Africa that was made from a single piece of wood.

Benenson crammed art into almost every space he inhabited. Inside the spacious house, which is otherwise low-key, nearly every room has its prints and paintings, and the living and dining rooms hold more than 200 African sculptures. He built an addition to the living room to hold his art. He enlarged the guest house to serve as a gallery. In the five large rooms of the gallery are the three-foot-high Fante drum and the Bamileke sculptured chair, the wall-size Red Grooms paintings, the life-size diorama of a coffee shop, the biggest masks and statues. There are aisles to walk through; otherwise, almost every square yard holds art. Lawrence, Charlie Benenson’s youngest son, asks first-time guests to enter these rooms with their eyes closed and walk to the middle of the room before they look. The effect is like a visual tidal wave.

Charlie Benenson is survived by his wife Jane and his three sons, Bruce William, Frederick, and Lawrence. He was a founding donor of the Museum of African Art. The Benin art gallery in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is named after him. He co-founded the Association for a Better New York and other charities. He was also generous with his art, lending it freely for shows around the world and admitting students to his galleries for study.

Benenson left all his African art to Yale.

Benenson left all his African art to Yale—elevating the University Art Gallery overnight from a nonentity in African art to one of the top museums in the country. Virtually all of his North American and European art will also come to Yale.

The way Charlie Benenson displayed his art was highly personal. In his extraordinary wall-to-wall juxtapositions, artists speak to each other across continents and centuries in dialogues—in whole oratorios—that are impossible in orderly museum format. When Yale removes its portion of the art and installs it for the public to see, as Benenson wished, those connections will be lost. These images by Richard Barnes, a leading museum and architecture photographer, may be the last record of what Charlie Benenson saw when he looked at his art.  the end




Side show of objects from the Benenson Collection


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